In scouting, we have a time-honored tradition of the evening cracker barrel where we gather near the end of the day to review the day’s activities and make our plans for the coming day.
The term has its origins in the country stores of the late 19th century, where the barrels of soda crackers ended up being the site of informal discussions between customers. The philosophizing taking place around these cracker barrels would have been, presumably, of the plain and simple sort. This extended use of the term as a modifier is reminiscent of the way in which “water-cooler” came to be used in the phrase “water-cooler conversation” with reference to the chatting and socializing that occurs between office workers in the communal area around a water cooler.
The first, dare I say, official recording of the term occurred in 1863 when General Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson met on the eve of the Battle of Chancellorsville to plan their strategy. They sat on ration boxes and called that meeting the Cracker-Barrel Conference.
Today, our cracker barrels are informal gatherings that are more social than they are business. And, because we are a food-based culture, we can’t gather without something to snack on. An evening cracker barrel can be as simple as s’mores by the campfire or a spread of meats, cheeses, and crackers, or after dinner Dutch oven desserts. Whatever is served, it is usually simple and unsophisticated. Nothing fancy.
Evening cracker barrels tend to be a mix of savory and sweet. On cold nights, they should include plenty of protein, which helps us to sleep warmer because our bodies have to work a little harder to digest it. They can include items that can be heated over the campfire or pulled straight out of the cooler. The simpler the better because no one wants to do any major cleanup late in the evening. Finger foods are a great way to go because then there are no dishes.
If you make something like a Dutch oven crisp or cobbler, foil line your Dutch oven for easy clean up and go ahead and breakout the disposable paper bowls and plastic silverware (we call that the fine china). Again, no one wants to be doing dishes late at night and you don’t want to leave them for morning because that’s just an open invitation for critters to invade your campsite overnight.
So, what makes good cracker barrel faire? Think appetizers. Little bites with big flavors. All those hors d’oeuvres we nibble on before a meal or at a party are perfect for a cracker barrel. Here are a few ideas:
Meats, Cheese, and Crackers
Chips with Salsa, Guacamole, Bean, and/or Queso Dip
Cheesecake Stuffed Strawberries
Rice Crispy Treats
Smoked Salmon and Crackers
Hummus and Pita Chips
Shrimp and Cocktail Sauce
When planning your cracker barrel, how many nibbles should you have? If your cracker barrel is shortly after dinner, plan on having 6-8 pieces per person. If your cracker barrel is later in the evening, you may want to plan on 12-15 pieces per person. Sometimes we’ll have an early dinner so we’re not cleaning up after it gets dark and a couple of hours can pass between dinner and cracker barrel. Or, if we’re planning a night hike or a late night of star gazing, games or campfire stories, we’ll have a more robust cracker barrel. If the weather is chilly, you’ll want to plan heartier snacks.
Whatever you choose to nibble on, it’s fun to gather with your fellow campers and talk about the day’s adventures and make your plans for the next day, even if all you’re planning is what time to have breakfast!
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